“…gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.” — From “Sailing to Byzantium” — William Butler Yates
In Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and Byzantium) there is a 1,500-year-old Roman cistern built by the Emperor Justinian to supply water to his palace and city, a purpose it continued to serve into modern times. Today you can go down into it, and, if you have a robust imagination, immerse yourself in Byzantine intrigues and mysteries on the shores of the Bosporus, in the shadows of the Topkapi Palace and Ayasofya. It’s one of the magic allures of a trip to Istanbul.
But if you’re not sailing to Byzantium anytime soon, you can still get a sense of mystery (though perhaps not intrigue) by visiting our own cistern on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, built in 1927 to provide water to the everyman castles of Houstonians, which it did until 2007.
The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern has been open for a while as a repurposed space, no longer a working part of the Houston water system, but instead a diverting destination for Houstonians on an outing. You may already have been to it, but whether you have or not, now is the time to go. For the next few months the cistern will host a repurposed work of art that seems made for it (because it was) — “Rain: Magdalena Fernández at the Houston Cistern.”
If you visited the exhibition “Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art From Latin America” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, last year you may recognize the piece, which is part of the MFAH permanent collection bearing the perplexing title 2iPM009.
The title is a code devised by the artist, Venezuelan Magdalena Fernández, to “eliminate -anecdotal reference that might somehow influence the viewer’s interpretation,” according to a note in the “Contingent Beauty” catalog, a tack curiously abandoned with the new title. But then, who’s going to drive across town through horrendous holiday traffic (believe me, I know whereof I speak after a disastrous attempt at a second look before writing) to view something called 2iPM009? Hence “Rain.”
It’s not just the title that’s complicated. The piece is based on concepts drawn from Piet Mondrian, but “metamorphoses and moves in space with a degree of plasticity and flexibility that was probably never envisioned by Mondrian.” Okay, I’m out of my depth here, but I remember liking the piece in the smaller version at MFAH. I even took a photo to use for my phone wallpaper (since deleted).
In its new life as “Rain” — a collaboration between MFAH and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership to fill the cistern with art, part of the plan from the beginning of the repurposing — Fernández has adapted her art specifically for the new environment. Here it reflects eerily off the concrete walls, shallow water and 221 columns, adding that “artifice of eternity” about which Yeats poetized.
One speaker at the preview likened the experience of “Rain” to the Kusama light-sound-and-mirror rooms at MFAH last summer. Indeed, those rooms might almost have risen to the level of “experience” except for the long lines and short viewing times. During my Kusama time, I couldn’t forget that in only seconds I’d be ushered out so someone else could take his or her turn. Experience fast was the watchword.
“Rain” at the cistern isn’t like that. The 40 or so of us on the preview tour went in as a group, listened to the informative patter, lined up at the railing and oohed and aahed as the art cycled through its one-minute, 56-second loop of light and sound, time after time, for almost an hour — pretty much as long as we wanted. (Regular ticketed tours are only 30 minutes, but that’s still not bad.)
I oohed and aahed along with everyone, but I had some doubts as I waited for the tingle — that warm, prickly pleasure/pain that lets you know the art isn’t just in your brain, but in your blood and skin as well. It took a while; I almost thought it wouldn’t happen; but finally it did. I was able to get away by myself, where it was just me in the dark space, with the waxing and waning light and sound, and for a moment I felt what I think Yeats was getting at.
As should always be the case with art (in my humble opinion), being in the midst of “Rain” evoked things for me that were probably not intended by either artist or curator: Am I alone in the Universe? (No, there are other people not far away — I’m pretty sure.) Is that distant red glow coming from Hell’s fiery inferno? (No, only the exit signs.) The sound that continues as the sound of the art winds down, is it the River Styx flowing to the underworld? (No, only some traffic on the street outside.) Such thoughts, rising no doubt from the murky recesses of my personal neuroses (with any luck you’ll substitute your own), seem silly back in the sunlight, but they were sort of a rush down there in the gloom.
And on the subject of repurposed art in repurposed spaces, there’s another example in town right now, and it too has a Byzantine angle. I’m talking about “Francis Alÿs: The Fabiola Project,” in what used to be the Byzantine Fresco Chapel at The Menil Collection, before the frescoes went back to Cyprus after their 15-year sojourn in Houston. With their departure, the Menil was left with the perplexing problem: What do you do with a purpose-built space whose purpose has left?
Their answer so far is to commission far-flung artists to make long-term installations for the deconsecrated chapel. “Fabiola Project” is the second, and has been installed for a while already, most of which time I’ve been trying to figure out what to make of it.
The installation consists of 450 iterations of the “lost 1885 painting of the 4th-century Roman Saint Fabiola by French artist Jean-Jacque Henner.” Most, but not all, of the 450 are paintings themselves, though some are done with seeds and other things.
If you’re Roman Catholic, you may have heard of Fabiola, but even if you’re French, you almost certainly won’t know much about Henner. He was very big in 19th-century Paris, but sometimes big doesn’t last, even if your Paris townhouse is a museum just for you. I went there once. I’m one of only two people I know who have, my husband being the other. This wasn’t a pilgrimage. The day was cold; the museum was close; admission was free. Why not? Turns out it was filled with some pretty wonderful paintings, though a bit melodramatic for modern tastes, but they were all ours, shared only with a guard who seemed not to have seen another human being since shortly after Henner’s death in 1905 — much like some of my visits to “The Fabiola Project,” come to think of it.
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Why, you might ask, would Francis Alÿs collect 450 knock-offs of Henner’s Fabiola? Why would the Menil show them? Why would we go see them? The brochure at the door hints at some answers, though I’m not yet totally convinced. Maybe the best answer is: Why not?
If we put ourselves in these repurposed spaces, let our eyes (and our brains) adjust a little, open our minds to these repurposed works of art, who knows what might happen? We might even feel the tingle.
Rain: Madgalena Fernández at the Houston Cistern
Through June 4, 2017. Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, 105 Sabine, 713-752-0314, ext. 301 or ext. 401, buffalobayou.org
Francis Alÿs: The Fabiola Project
Through May 13, 2018. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel at The Menil Collection, 4011 Yupon, 713-525-9400, menil.org